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General Barn Terms
This collection of general barn terms is offered in an on-going effort to educate barn people in more precisely knowing the various construction elements of vernacular barns and the various structural components that builders incorporated into the buildings that they erected and some of the tools that builders used.

At the end of this general list of barn terms there is found a list of terms that are normally associated with Pennsylvania barns. Since Pennsylvania barns are culturally very important and hundreds of thousands of them still exist these terms are important to identify various structural elements in them.

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ADZE - a wood handled tool that has a cutting edge at a right angle to the handle. Beams are often said to be adzed when in fact they were most frequently broad-axed.

AISLE - a lengthwise area (parallel to the roof peak) in a building that has spaces (often three) that are created – often seen in Dutch-American barns.

BAY – a cross wise or transverse area in a barn that appears between adjacent timber framing units or bents or a bent and an adjacent masonry end wall.

BEAM – a fair sized horizontal timber in a building’s framing system.

BENT – a timber framing unit that consists of vertical posts, horizontal beams and often diagonal braces that is erected from a horizontal position to a final vertical resting place. The units can either be longitudinally oriented (side walls in English barns and Dutch-American barns) or often transversely oriented (H-frames in Dutch-American barns). See below:


BENT - An isometric of structural framing of the four-bay Isaac van Campen Dutch barn in Sussex County in northwest NJ.


BENT - An early nineteenth-century side wall entry Dutch-American barn in northeast Schoharie County, NY. Note the large double ties or anchor-beams with extended tenons in the one bent. (Photo courtesy of Geoffrey Gross.)


BENT - A view of the interior of circa 1850 stone to peak Kalmbach Standard Pennsylvania barn in Macungie, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. Upper part of the bent is seen with built-in ladder that flanks the wagon bay.


BOX FRAME – a term usually assigned to English–based construction where roof trusses are supported by a matrix of beams and posts and wall plates. H-frames are not seen.

BRACE - diagonal timber that appears between a post and a beam and functions predominantly in compression and very little in tension.

BROADAXE – a well known wood handled cutting tool (with beveled edge) for forming timbers where the handle is bent or curved to prevent the hand from being cut on the timber as it is being formed.

Broadaxes were a very major wood cutting tool used by many pre 1875 house and barn builders. Note beveled cutting edge and bent handle that are both classic features of broadaxes. This tool was in the Eric Sloane collection prior to 1975.


Goose-wing broadaxes have been attributed to Germanic sources and untold numbers have been found in the earliest settled sections in southeast Pennsylvania. From collection of William Phillips.

CANTILEVERED BEAM – a timber unsupported at one of its ends and is very often found at the front wall area in Pennsylvania fore-bay barns.

COLLAR BEAM – a horizontal beam that unites two rafters in a rafter pair. Incorrect term is collar tie.

COMMON PURLIN - a longitudinal timber spaced at intervals that connects large or principal rafters and carrying the roof sheathing.

COMMON RAFTER – a series of same sized and pitched beams in the plane of a roof that join in pairs and support roof sheathing.

EAVES – that edge of a roof that over-sails a wall.

GABLE ROOF – the exterior end wall that includes the roof peak and is above the eave level and thus is triangular shaped – it conforms to the upper roof edge.

GAMBREL ROOF – a roof that has two roof slopes at each half side of the building where the lower slopes are steeper than the upper slopes.

GIRT – a horizontal timber that appears between adjacent wall posts between the bottom sill and the top plate.

GUNSTOCK POST - a post that has a flared out section at its top end to often receive a cross tie and a longitudinal plate in the same area - also called a jowled post.

HARDWOOD – one of two major botanical wood classes that have porous wood – also called deciduous woods such as elm, ask, oak and hickory among many others.

H-FRAME – a term often reserved for that distinctive bent in the middle aisle or nave in Dutch-American three-aisle barns. Each bent consists of a large horizontal overhead anchor-beam with two vertical end posts and diagonal end braces. The anchor-beams often have prominent extended tenons that define such ethnic barns. H-frames are sometime called H-bents.

HEW – a shaped timber formed from a log done by hand most often by a broad-axe.

JOINERY – the connections that were created by timber framers by means of mortises and tenons.

JOINT – the coming together of timbers at a specific spot.

LONGITUDINAL – denotes a timber that is oriented parallel to the roof peak or ridgeline and the timber may be a full barn length one or a partial one.

MARRIAGE MARKS – are the marks incised into the wood surfaces by carpenters at certain framing joints. Such marks function as an accounting system and often identical marks are seen on each timber at the joint.


Marriage marks were used by timber frame builders as a type of accounting system for associating proper or “meant to be joined” timbers to be put together. These marks were most often formed by chisels.

MORTISE – the formed pocket or female place of a timber joint where a projected tongue or tenon or male part is inserted into.


A mortise is a pocket or chiseled-out area in timber for reception of tenon of associated joined timber

PENNSYLVANIA BARN – a particular form of barn that originated in southeast Pennsylvania that has a cantilevered front wall that extends for various feet depending on the barn beyond the stable wall. This barn type is always of two levels – a basement and an upper level where various numbers of bays were incorporated into the upper barn structure where farm crops were stored and threshing of grains occurred. A few
classes of Pennsylvania barns appear on the cultural landscape.

PLATE – a longitudinal or building lengthwise timber that normally ties in all the tops of bents or other framing units together. Plates are usually associated with the words purlin or wall (rafter).

POST – (in general) a vertical standing timber that supports other timbers or beams.

PRINCIPAL PURLIN – a longitudinal timber that is part of a roof structure that connects principal rafters and also carries common rafters.

PRINCIPAL RAFTER – part of a roof frame that includes considerably larger sized rafters that are interspersed with common rafters. These are rafters seen in many earlier type English based barns in New England and elsewhere and many pre 1830 Pennsylvania fore-bay barns seen predominantly in southeast Pennsylvania.

PURLIN PLATE – a longitudinal timber that often supports common rafters in many ethnic barns. These plates are in turn supported by posts.

QUEENPOST – a vertical post that appears as a pair that most often emanates from a tie beam in an English barn or a tie from a bent that supports a purlin plate. A three-bay barn for instance would normally have a total of eight queen posts – four per barn side.

RAFTER – an inclined roof timber that supports roof sheathing above it. Rafters often appear as single length timbers that run from roof peak to wall plate.

SILL – a horizontal timber either transversely set or longitudinally set that sits on a foundation and connects posts in a frame.

SOFFIT – a very general term that denotes the underside of any architectural element or piece of wood.

SOFTWOOD – one of two major botanical wood classes that have non-porous wood fibers – also often called coniferous woods such as pine, fir, spruce, hemlock, cypress and redwood among others.

SUMMER BEAM – often a building length horizontal longitudinal timber of large size that supports ceiling joists that in turn supports the floor above it.

TENON – the projecting tongue or male part that is inserted into a hollowed out area or mortise as the female part of a timber union or joint.

TIE BEAM – a transverse timber usually found at the top of a framing unit or bent or a few feet below the top of the bent.

TRUNNEL – a wood peg or pin that unites a mortise and tenon together in a timber joint.

TRUSS – a complex of timbers that forms a rigid support structure and often associated with roof supports.

VERNACULAR – a term applied to local manufacture, style and materials due to influences of culture and climate and other factors.

WANE – the natural curve (last annual growth ring) of a timber that appears just under the bark of a tree.

WIND BRACE – a brace that lies in the plane of a roof.


Terms Associated with Pennsylvania Barns

BAY – The space or area between adjacent framing units or bents. Thus, in a frame barn with four bents there are three bays. A barn with five bents has four bays, etc. In stone barns the so-called end bay is the area between the last bent and the adjacent stone gable or end wall. Therefore, two end bays appear in these barns.

BENT – A major transverse framing unit on the second floor level that consists of partial barn width tie beams, vertical side wall posts, mid-point posts, braces of varying lengths and, often, built-in ladders. These bents were assembled on the barn floor or ground and then raised from a horizontal position to a vertical position by the efforts of a number of men using pike poles. At the top of bents, full barn width upper tie beams appear that are not actually parts of the bents as these ties were positioned after the bents were raised. This is referred to as normal assembly; whereas, when upper ties in certain barns were dropped below the level of the posts, the term is called reverse assembly.

BRACE – These diagonal members are either relatively short or quite long. When they are short, these beams connect partial tie beams to either the wall posts or the centered posts of the bents. They prevent the bents from lateral racking. Braces can also appear in other areas of the barn such as in the plane of the roof where they are known as wind braces. They can also connect purlin plates to queen posts. When they are long, they appear from the floor sill to the partial tie beam. These braces are often considered to be Germanic in nature. In Pennsylvania barns, braces are most often pegged at each end.

BUlLT-IN LADDER – These ladders are original elements and are most often centered on the bents that are adjacent to the wagon bays. Thus, Pennsylvania barns very often have at least two built-in ladders and three ladders very often appear in four-bay barns. They often have rungs (of oak) or the ladders can assume other forms such as cut-out areas in horizontal boards that function as rungs. Occasionally the ladders extend to the roof. Quite often they extend to the straining beam when vertical queen posts appear.

FOREBAY – That part of a Pennsylvania barn on the second floor which is located toward the barn front wall that cantilevers over the stable wall of the basement. The fore-bay is also called an overshoot. Recall from above that the Pennsylvania barn is defined as a two-level banked barn with a fore-bay at the front wall. Other barn types, such as one-level ground barns, occasionally have fore-bays.

GABLE – That wall at the end of the barn that includes the triangular section above the eaves level that extends to the roof peak. Gable walls are opposed to side or eave walls. Thus four sided barns have two gable walls and between them are two side walls.

GRANARY – Very often located in the fore-bay side of a Pennsylvania barn and extend into the area behind the area of the fore-bay. The one side or wall of the granary is continuous with the mow-stead wall that flanks the threshing floor. The front wall of the granary is actually part of the front wall of the fore-bay. The other wall that is opposite the mow-stead wall is the end wall of the barn itself. Both the back wall and ceiling of the granary are made of boards. Granaries are broken up into individual grain-bin compartments for storage of grain. At the front of the granary is a passageway for access to the bins. Ceilings are about 6 to 7 feet high. Above the granaries farm crops were stored.

JOISTS – Transverse ceiling timbers in basements that extend from the rear wall over the stable-wall and out to the front fore-bay wall. Most often joists are supported by and are positioned over summer beam(s). Joists are most often of oak and can attain widths of 10 to as much as 18 inches. Joists along their interior lengths are often left in the round at their sides. In contrast they are hewn square beyond the front of the stable walls apparently for aesthetic reasons.

LONGITUDINAL – This is an orientation of a barn timber that is parallel to the ridgeline. Full barn length longitudinal timbers are purlin plates, wall plates, summer beams or front fore-bay wall sills. Other longitudinal timbers that do not run the full barn length are girts or horizontal timbers at the front wall in Standard barns. Longitudinal timbers are placed at ninety degrees to placement of transverse (see below) timbers.

LOOPHOLES – One of the major means of ventilating the interiors of certain stone barns in eastern Pennsylvania and perhaps elsewhere. Loopholes appear in two different forms – as vertical slits or balistratus (2 to 3 feet in height) or as brick lined holes (openings 9 to 10 inches in diameter). The slits are found in barns in a number of counties in southeast Pennsylvania while the holes are seen in barns within only about a dozen miles or less on either side of the Delaware River. Usually, several rows of loopholes of either type are seen on gable walls and most often in two rows on the rear walls of stone barns. Barns with vertical ventilator slits preceded barns with brick lined loopholes by a few decades. The earliest known barn with slits appears in a dated 1761 ground barn. Loopholes outlined in brick most often stand rigidly as first made and exist as finely crafted examples of early type brick masonry that have survived up to 175 years on certain barns in Northampton and Bucks County. Standard barns and perhaps even a Switzer barn or two possess such loopholes. It appears that these loopholes in most cases did not appear on barns until about 1825 or even 1830 up to about 1850 or so and perhaps beyond. Other barns have louvered or slatted windows that may have preceded brick lined loop-holed barns by about a decade.

MOWSTEAD WALL – Mow-stead walls are part of the bents that flank wagon bays in barns, often appearing five to six feet and sometimes more above the wagon floor. They consist most often of horizontal boards often of pine or of oak in certain pre-1810 or 1820 barns that are secured by wrought, transitional or cut type nails. Such nails can quite often be good general indicators of construction ages of barns. These boards are nailed to partial tie beams and bent posts that are often notched to receive the ends of the boards.


Mow-stead walls are very commonly found in upper floor levels in Pennsylvania barns. Here is the mow-stead wall in the dated 1835 Marcks Standard stone to the peak bank barn in Lower Macungie, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania.

PElLER ECK – This is the German dialect word for pier corner. These are ell-shaped formations, always of stone, most often at the front corners of Standard barns and certain Switzers at the basement level and above in all stone barns. They were included in the fabric of the barn for extra support of the stone gable walls.

PRINCIPAL RAFTER SYSTEMS – Rafter systems in barns that have much larger rafters that are in line with bents and in end bays than the so-called common rafters that appear between the principal rafters. Most often in the southeast counties of Pennsylvania, these large rafters do not normally appear in barns built until about 1790 and are quite rare in barns after about 1830 or 1840. (See Purlin Plate and Rafter)

PURLIN PLATE – Barn-length or longitudinal timber that extend from one gable (end) wall to the opposite gable wall. They appear in pairs – one per roof slope. Purlin plates support rafters. They are quite often spliced or come in two or three sections or lengths. The points where plate sections meet the splicing areas are referred to as scarf joints. Barns that feature Principal Rafter Systems have purlin plates that are decidedly different than in those that are seen in barns that have Common Rafter Systems. These purlin plates instead of being in one long single piece or spliced timber are sectioned and quite often staggered. That is, they appear in single length sections or timbers between adjacent Principal Rafters. They are staggered in that they attach to the sides of the Principal Rafters at different points along the lengths of these rafters. In addition, barns of large size with Principal Rafters very often have a double level or tiered system of purlin plates ostensibly for greater support.

QUEEN POST – A vertical or angled timber (depending on the barn) that extends most often from an upper tie beam of a bent or structural framing unit to the soffit or undersurface of the purlin plate. Thus, the queen post supports the purlin plate. In certain early German barns with particular roofing systems there are no queen posts. In certain other early German barns, there are queen-like posts. When posts are angled the term canted is applied. Canted queen posts are often utilized in later barns; that is, after about 1840, but can appear before that time.


Vertical queen posts are timbers of relatively short length that supported mid-length roof support timbers called purlin plates. In certain other barns angled posts are called canted queen posts.

RAFTER – These are the major structural members of the roof, often of oak, that appear just below the outermost roof covering that support the covering. Rafters virtually always come in pairs and in almost all pre-Civil War barns and fairly often in post-Civil War barns are pegged at the roof peak. Rafters at their bottoms join to the wall plates that sit atop the side walls that are of frame, stone or brick construction. Rafters that are of the same basic size in a given barn are referred to as Common Rafter Systems.

Many early era barns, most especially in the Saucon Valley in Northampton County in the 1790 to 1840 time frame, have English based Principal Rafter Systems. Such barn roofs consist of (depending on the barn) two to five Principal Rafter pairs where each truss is composed of two large sized and paired rafters. Principal Rafter pairs are either in line with the framing units or bents or they appear about mid-way in end bays in certain barns. They alternate with considerably smaller sized common rafters. Such rafter systems of about 140 barns of various ages and types have been identified by EBC.

SIDE WALL – The side or eave wall is the wall that appears between the gable walls. In the great majority of Pennsylvania barns the main wagon doors appear on the rear side wall. The front fore-bay wall should be considered a side wall.

SILL – This timber appears at the edge of any floor that appears in a fore-bay barn (and in other barns). Individual sills acting in concert constitute a sill system. They appear along the edges of threshing bays and wagon bays. They also appear at the bottom of the floor at the front wall of the fore-bay.

SPRIGGEL BAR – A horizontal bar of wood at the horse entry doors on the stable wall. These are set into the wide wooden door jambs about halfway up the door opening, and slide freely into a horizontal pocket in the stone or into long wood boxes built into the stone wall at the one side. These bars kept the horses contained in the stable areas. Spriggel bars are more commonly found in barns built before about 1840 but exceptions exist. Rarely two bars are seen per door opening.

STABLE WALL – The stable wall or stahlwand at the basement level in Pennsylvania barns often of stone and sometimes of brick or even wood is set back from the front edge of the end wall by four to as much as ten or more feet. It contains several animal doors and one or two feed-entry doors. Very often these doors are halved, with a top and bottom.

STRAINING BEAM OR QUEEN POST TIE BEAM – These transverse beams stretch from one queen post to the adjacent queen post above the bent with which it is in line. They were often included in barns constructed before about 1860 and less often after that time. In many barns these ties were removed when metal hay tracks at the roof peak were installed after the Civil War. These tie beams very rarely or never appear between canted queen posts.

SUMMER BEAM – This is the barn-length longitudinal ceiling beam – gable wall to gable wall – in the basement that forms the main support of the second or loft floor above. Actually, joists support the floor above, but the summer beam in turn supports the joists that appear above the summer. They are often spliced in one or two spots. Summer beams are often large-sized and very often oak. A fair to good number of barns have two summer beams. Rarely do barns have three summer beams. And one very large circa 1840 barn east of State College remarkably has five summer beams.

TRANSVERSE - This is an orientation of a timber positioned in a barn that is perpendicular to the roof ridgeline - or side wall to side wall. Full barn width transverse timbers are upper tie beams and basement level ceiling joists. Another type of transverse timber that does not run the full barn width is a partial tie beam that appears in bents a few feet below the upper tie beam.

UPPER TIE BEAM – This is the transverse beam at the top of a bent that spans nearly the entire width of the barn and appears at the top of the bent or more rarely that is seen dropped one to two feet below the tops of the posts. It is almost always in line with the wall plate. Upper tie beams are usually associated with early English barns in New England and they tie the longitudinal side wall bents together. In Pennsylvania these beams rest on side wall posts that appear on frame barns and may or may not rest on posts in stone barns. They are placed into position after the bent is raised into its vertical place. This type of beam is found in Pennsylvania fore-bay barns until the Civil War and occasionally beyond.

UPPER PARTIAL TIE BEAM – These beams are sometimes called scaffolding beams. They often appear in bents of Pennsylvania fore-bay barns and are seen a few feet below the upper tie and stretch between a side wall post and a centered post.

WALL POST – These are major vertical timbers that are part of the front walls in stone Standard barns and on both front, rear and gable walls in frame Standard barns. Posts appear most often in bents at both the front and rear side walls.

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